On Small Stage, British ‘Ring’ Cycle Scores Big On Imagination, Quality

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Lee Bisset as Brunnhilde and Bradley Daley as Siegfried in the Longborough Festival production of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (Photos by Matthew Williams-Ellis)

MORETON-IN-MARSH, U.K. — The Longborough Festival, a relatively new, upstart opera company located west of London in the Cotswolds, has pulled off a seriously professional production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in a 500-seat house. With a strong, mostly British cast and beloved Wagner conductor Anthony Negus leading a 60-piece orchestra, this was a compelling, moving cycle.

Amy Lane‘s production (seen June 25-30) packed quite a lot onto the small stage of the festival theater, a converted barn. Lane and her designer, Rhiannon Newman Brown, produced a semicircular unit set with steps on each side, and each night they found inventive ways to represent whole scenes with minimal props — an armchair for Hunding’s hut, a raised disc for Brünnhilde’s rock. A screen in back showed simple projections, designed by Tim Baxter. Often these were static landscapes drained of color, suggesting illustrations from old folklore; at other times there were images reflecting the libretto such as slow-moving horses’ hooves, gushing water, or flames. Alberich’s serpent was represented on the screen by a large eye and some scales.

Mark Stone, front, as Alberich, and Paul Carey Jones as Wotan in ‘Das Rheingold’

This was a Ring almost totally devoid of metaphor or symbolism, satisfying to traditionalists but a missed opportunity for those seeking new insight or intellectual challenge. Lane took a dark view of her characters, especially Wotan. Even in Das Rheingold, he was made to appear fearful and weak, collapsing into spasms at a time when the music described him as full of pep and confidence. This pessimistic outlook, evident in other major characters, was less in conflict with the score in the later operas.

Lane occasionally resorted to capricious gestures, such as frenetic hand movements in Die Walküre from the Valkyries, who pantomimed choking themselves as Brünnhilde was brought to judgment. Two dancers portrayed the Nibelungs, performing a pas de deux upon the theft of the gold, presumably to celebrate their freedom. Characters often stopped to write in a leather-bound book passed around. But despite occasional incongruities, Lane coaxed admirably persuasive performances from her cast, made intelligent use of the small performing space, and moved people around smartly. Her gift is for bringing out the human and sympathetic side of each character. All in all, she created an energetic, ultimately persuasive production.

Costumes, by Emma Ryott, ranged from modern casual to gowns and, especially, long coats, with little touches like a leather bodice for Brünnhilde. Lighting, by Charlie Morgan Jones, was especially effective when reproducing effects such as the magic fire in Die Walküre or the conflagration at the end of Götterdämmerung.

Paul Carey Jones was a strong Wotan. He is a gifted actor whose portrayal was fully credible and thoughtful, with less of a “Big Daddy” swagger than is typical. His voice was ample and attractive. Mark Stone’s Alberich was often fearsome, but he, too, revealed flashes of humanity. With a powerful baritone, he was a worthy foil for Jones’ Wotan. Lee Bissett was an attractive, riveting Brünnhilde with a substantial voice hampered by a significant wobble.

Julian Close as Hunding, Emma Bell as Sieglinde, and Mark Le Brocq as Siegmund in ‘Die Walküre

Marc Le Brocq sang Siegmund with a handsome tenor and excellent control, and he also made a charismatic Loge. Emma Bell, as Sieglinde, displayed a glorious, rich soprano that rang throughout the theater. She recently sang the role in the English National Opera Ring cycle and has been turning up in major Wagner roles everywhere. Julian Close was an ideal Hunding with power to spare, and later a memorable Hagen. Madeleine Shaw’s Fricka was relatable, never the caricature of a shrew. Mae Heydorn was a flawless Erda. Adrian Dwyer’s Mime was nicely balanced — comic without lapsing into caricature. Benedict Nelson and Laure Meloy sang elegantly as Gunther and Gutrune. The various Rhine maidens, Valkyries, Norns, etc. were thoroughly professional, on a par with any great opera house. 

The hero of this production, however, is Negus, a veteran conductor who has developed a cult following for his mastery of Wagner, though he is less well known in the U.S, where he has rarely conducted. Music director at Longborough for 20-plus years, he led the company’s first Ring, beginning in 2000, using the Jonathan Dove version of the score, which reduced both the orchestra size (about 20 instruments) and running time (roughly half). He led a reduced Ring at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh (now Pittsburgh Festival Opera) over two summers, in 2005 and 2006, using that version. After an expansion of the pit in the Longborough Festival theater, he began building a cycle of the full Ring here in 2013. The current Ring was built beginning in 2019. The pandemic forced some compromises: In 2021, Die Walküre was performed with limited staging and a reduced orchestra split between pit and stage. This season, a year later than planned, is the culmination of that process.

Mark Stone as Alberich and Julian Close as Hagen in in ‘Götterdämmerung

In a conversation the morning after Die Walküre, Negus spoke of having a particular approach to each opera: “I think you have to play up the empty pomposity of Rheingold for all it’s worth” while seeking to “find a course that runs through from beginning to end,” something he learned from the German conductor Rudolf Kempe. Negus clearly found that course, or line, and brought a unified vision to this cycle. His climaxes were measured out, maximizing the thrilling impact of the more important ones. There were glitches, but his balances were superb, and he never overwhelmed his singers, aided presumably by the design of the pit here, which slopes downward deep under the stage, like at Bayreuth. In December 2023, Negus conducted a new Ring production at Melbourne Opera to considerable acclaim. Starting in 2028, he’ll lead a new cycle at England’s Grange Park Opera.

As for Longborough, in 2025 the festival will present the premiere of Avner Dorman’s Wahnfried: The Birth of the Wagner Cult, based on the story of the Wagner family after the composer’s death. Negus will conduct Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Other operas will include Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The location, in the center of the Cotswolds, is gorgeous but a bit isolated. A shuttle bus connects to the train station in nearby Moreton-in-Marsh, which has service from London. Operas typically begin at 3 p.m. and end at 9, so it’s relatively easy to return to London after a performance. Another option is to go by car and stay in the area. Note that patrons tend to dress up: At the performances I attended, about half of the men wore black tie.

Longborough’s Das Rheingold has completed its run. The final performance of Siegfried is July 7. Götterdämmerung closes July 9. Die Walküre continues through July 14.